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Apple iPhone 4S review

Verdict

The fastest smartphone bar none, but its chief selling point – Siri – is a work in progress, making the iPhone 4S an expensive upgrade

Review Date: 27 Oct 2011

Reviewed By: Barry Collins

Price when reviewed: £129, on a £30.00 per month, 24 months contract.

Buy it now for: £494
(see more store prices)

Overall Rating
5 stars out of 6

Features & Design
5 stars out of 6

Value for Money
3 stars out of 6

Performance
6 stars out of 6

PCPRO Recommended

After four years and five different handsets, a predictable pattern has emerged with Apple’s iPhone. With pre-launch rumours focusing on an iPhone 5, Apple surprised everyone with a handset containing no great surprises. Just as the iPhone 3GS was a modest improvement on the iPhone 3G, we now have the 4S refining the iPhone 4 formula. Tick follows tock, follows tick, follows tock…

But while you might struggle to notice any difference in appearance, is there anything lurking beneath that glossy black exterior that makes the 4S more than a stopgap for the iPhone 5? Especially given that owners of iPhone 3GS and 4 handsets can also upgrade to iOS 5?

Revamped hardware


Only the most eagle-eyed observer could tell the difference between an iPhone 4S and its predecessor. The silence button has been shifted down a few millimetres – potentially making it tricky to reuse an iPhone 4 case – and the new antenna layout sees a couple of black lines around the perimeter repositioned, but this is to all intents and purposes an identical design.

Apple iPhone 4S

On the inside, however, Apple has made a few significant improvements. In comes the same dual-core A5 processor that powers the iPad 2, delivering tablet-like performance in the confines of a 3.5in smartphone. The full BBC homepage loaded in only 2.5 seconds – as fast as an iPad 2 running iOS 5, and a second and a half faster than the A-Listed Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone. The 4S ripped through the SunSpider benchmark in 2.2 seconds – 0.4 seconds slower than our iPad 2, but a third quicker than the Galaxy S II. This is the fastest smartphone we’ve ever seen, and by some distance.

That processing power isn’t only apparent in synthetic benchmarks: demanding 3D games such as FIFA 2012 are flawlessly smooth, even if the back of the phone does get a little toasty when the processor is pushed; multitasking doesn’t trouble the processor – we had the TomTom satnav, the music player and iOS notifications running simultaneously without a hint of slowdown; and there’s none of the occasional juddering witnessed on previous-generation hardware upgraded to iOS 5.

Speaking to Siri

That dual-core A5 processor also (according to Apple, at least) gives rise to the iPhone 4S’s only unique feature: Siri. Although limited voice controls were available in earlier iPhone models, Siri raises the AI bar, allowing users to bark natural language commands into their handset and have the phone speak back or display the requested information on screen. Although Siri offloads the voice recognition duties to the server – requiring an active data connection before it will even attempt to decipher what you’re saying – Apple claims that only the dual-core processor is capable of the necessary data crunching. Although given that apps such as Dragon Dictation have transcribed the spoken word at a similar speed to Siri on earlier iPhones, we can’t help but wonder if this a smokescreen designed purely to differentiate the 4S from its predecessors.

Siri is clever, but not nearly as clever as it might be, and clearly a work in progress. It works best when asked to perform set tasks: “do I have any appointments today?” will send Siri scouring through your calendar, displaying any meetings in the diary; “wake me up at seven,” will set an alarm call for the morning; “tell Jonathan Bray I’ll be in at ten” will send a text message to said reviews editor (provided he’s in your phone contacts) with the necessary message.

Apple iPhone 4S - Siri

It starts to fall down when tasked with more bespoke jobs. Dictating emails or lengthy text messages is too hit and miss, with Siri making it so hard to correct poorly transcribed text that you simply revert to the keyboard. Telling Siri to “remember my laptop when I leave here” creates a reminder that’s meant to go off when the GPS sensor detects you’ve left the building, but it failed to do so on the two occasions we tested it. And potentially useful location-based commands such as “find the nearest Starbucks” or “show me a map of Brighton” only work in the US.

As it is, Siri also needs a decent chunk of time spent training it on who’s who in your phonebook, and for you to get used to the right way to say things for the best results, so it’s not going to replace touch control anytime soon. The one place it could potentially come into its own is in the car, especially as it can be activated with a Bluetooth headset – allowing drivers to have text messages read to them and compose simple replies without risking a fine (or indeed their lives) by reaching for the handset. It has potential, but in its current incarnation it’s not quite the killer feature Apple must have hoped it would be.

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User comments

unique features..?

So the "only unique feature" is some voice recognition that has to work in the cloud. Never mind that Mango has similar, working on device. Fair enough the AI may not be as strong but that is besides the point.
As ever it will be the fruity one that gets all the coverage for it's (purloined) technologies

By nickallison on 27 Oct 2011

@nickallison - have you actually seen Siri in action? It's far, far superior to any on-device voice recognition service (and I don't mean to belittle Mango here - I'm sure it's among the best), both in terms of its accuracy of transcribing natural speech and its facility with understanding natural language. And as it's running on a server, I'd expect it's going to keep getting better with time.

By flyingbadger on 27 Oct 2011

Back in the real world....

Both Android and IOS devices are currently getting loads of coverage and that is entirely correct given how they have redefined the mobile phone in the last 5-6 years.

There is plenty of room for both I have an iPhone, my two teenage sons have Android. They really like their Android phones, although it is fair to say that they are not as stable, or consistent in operation as my iPhone.

The innovation and the competition that drives it can only be good for consumers. If you don't like Apple, don't buy their products and ignore the press!

If any supplier goes off track,it is the loss of custom that tells them, ask Nokia or Motorola. Apple do what they do, because enough people like it, and apparently like it a lot!

By Dannyt on 27 Oct 2011

'Value'

Why are you still making value judgements about phones by comparing the price of phone contracts?

You are not reviewing phone contracts, you are reviewing phones. How much is an iPhone 4s v. Galaxy S II?

By Thermostat9 on 27 Oct 2011

3GS upgrade...

I upgraded my 3GS - to an htc Sensation (via a Mozart).

I don't see anything in the 4S that makes me regret that. With iOS 4 and iOS 5, the 3GS became a bit of a slug, swapping between apps - the Settings app takes over 10 seconds to launch FFS!

I haven't had any stability problems with Android - more so with iOS4; and it kept corrupting my Audible collection!

I must admit, I've been disappointed with the iPhone 4S and the Nokia Lumina 800, both were hyped up in the press as offering more than they delivered.

I agree with your assessment, the 4S is a good upgrade for 3GS users, but for Android or iPhone 4 users, it doesn't offer much incentive.

By big_D on 27 Oct 2011

@Thermostat9

I could not agree more. When reviewing handsets, the SIM-free price is the one that is relevant. To realise how over-priced these premium handsets are, compare Apple's own pricing for iPhone versus iPod Touch. At 32GB (smallest capacity available in both devices) the touch is £249 and the phone £599.

In hardware terms the only difference is the cellular radio and GPS. You get the same retina display, dual cameras and other sensors.

Quite apart from affordability, I am getting increasingly concerned about carrying such a concentration of value around the city in my pocket.

I wonder if getting a Touch and a portable 3G WiFi access point is a viable alternative approach?

By JohnAHind on 27 Oct 2011

Hey everyone look over here at SIRI, look, this way this way, no dont look over there at the fact weve not delivered iphone 5 with all we had promised, thats it let siri and a modest camera upgrade take your attention away.......

By letmein7 on 27 Oct 2011

Cheap iPhone 4S shock!

Same old story; we like the Apple product but not the price? Not any more! My contract deal was almost as cheap as any Android or Blackberry that I could find. In fact it was so cheap I thought I must have been scammed!
So if Apple are softening their stance on pricing, and they might just be doing that, the real question should be; if all phones cost the same, which is the best?

By onthehuh on 27 Oct 2011

@thermostat and johnahind

I think you are missing the point. Value has to be based on the means by which the majority of users will buy the phone. Only a relatively small number of people will buy the phone outright, with the vast majority buying on contract. Therefore basing the vfm judgement on the fact that for most users getting a 4S will make you at least £250 worse off than getting a SG2, is a totally appropriate approach.

By Flangie on 27 Oct 2011

Flash?

Does it support Flash? I suspect not.

Does using SIRI eat into your data allowance to any significant degree?

By barrada on 27 Oct 2011

@barrada

Does it really need flash? Not imo. I've had my 3GS for two years now and can honestly say I haven't missed flash. Friends with Android devices try the same argument every time then show me flash working on their devices. Not impressed with how it slows things down.

By Brettrowley1 on 27 Oct 2011

@Flangie

You are kidding yourself: it just looks less quoted as a monthly cost.

Multiply up the numbers and it comes to £849 over 24 months. Buy the phone outright and get a GiffGaff SIM and pay £10 a month for unlimited internet and texts and a more than adequate calls allowance (for me anyway) and the total is about the same with no contract lock-in. You only save on a monthly contract if you actually use the full allowances and manage to resist an upgrade for the full contract term.

So PC Pro: if you must quote contract costs, at least multiply them up to give the TCO!

By JohnAHind on 27 Oct 2011

And another thing ...

I wish reviewers would comment on geo location performance. I still use an old iPhone 3G and I find that when I get off a plane (after having the phone switched off like a good little passenger) it takes the best part of a day to "find itself" again even when it has a good cellular signal and internet access. So navigation service is lost just when you most need it!

Have Apple fixed this in the latest handsets? Is this a problem with Android too? Why do reviewers never test this?

By JohnAHind on 27 Oct 2011

@JohnAHind

I'm amused that you think reviewers should take a (plane?) trip with every review to test the geo-location.

By miles_roper on 27 Oct 2011

@Johnahind

I'm not saying that contract is cheaper...just that most people buy it that way, so that should be the actual basis of comparison.

As a like for like comparison on 24 month contract in terms of minutes/data etc, on Vodafone:

SGS2- Free
£36 per month for 900min, unlimited texts, 750mb data =£864

4S - £49 for phone plus
£41 per month for the same allowance= £1033

Therefore, if you don't have £600 in your pocket (like most people), and so have to gat a phone on contract, the SGS2 is much better value.

By Flangie on 27 Oct 2011

So basically, if you've got an iPhone4, don't bother with an upgrade. If you've got a top android phone, don't bother. So only people with iPhone3's should upgrade? Right?

Btw, Siri, if you look at the forums, performs no better than any of the voice recognition software already out there....

They're all way off useable.

A very good phone, but a nothing release really.

By CraigieDD on 27 Oct 2011

Prices and Siri

Thanks for all the comments.

A couple of pieces of feedback:

1. Prices. We use contract prices because, as Flangie points out, the majority of people buy on a contract and we try and keep our reviews as real world as possible. There's no doubt the iPhone has one of the highest TCOs out there, which is why it only scored 3/6 for value for money.

2. Those claiming it performs no better than other voice recognition apps are slightly missing the point. The key with Siri is the integration into the core OS that allows you to have text messages read to you, select playlists from iTunes, book appointments in your calendar etc. The actual accuracy may be no better/worse than alternatives, but it's far more useful than previous attempts at smartphone voice recognition.

Barry Collins
Editor

By Barry_Collins on 27 Oct 2011

real world use

The big frustration with so many reviews is that the real performance of a phone or any other device only really reveals itself with use. I am still searching for the perfect phone - the iphone 4 was seriously let down by the phones performance, too many dropped calls, inability to maintain stable network connections - I suspect all known by apple and interestingly having used the new 4s for a couple of weeks these issues seems to have been resolved BUT what the hell has happened to wireless and data connections? The wireless is unable to establish a connection on the 4s which the 4 lapped up. I'm finding this a common problem in areas where the 4 had no problem at all - similarly the 4s struggles to maintain a data connection - this is on the same orange network and from the same locations where the 4 was perfect. So my search for the perfect phone continues. Tried the last of the Symbian Nokias - too clunky, tried various HTC androids but all come up short, BB not for me. Why oh why Apple can you not just fix the bloody antenna so it will do both the phone bit and the data bit together!!

By ahdavies on 27 Oct 2011

@Barry_Collins

I'd take issue with the integration being a new thing Barry. It's been around on other phones for months. You can issue the same commands on many other phones - with the same iffy results. In my experience it works about 40% of the time completely fine.

I really do look forward to when it is more accurate as I can see a full range of uses.

By CraigieDD on 27 Oct 2011

"But while you might struggle to notice any difference in appearance"

That's going to be a deal breaker for a lot of Apple fan boi zombies.

What really is the point of HAVING a new iPhone if the Hoi polloi can't SEE that it's a new iPhone?

Instead of ostentatiously posing with it in the hope that an Android using pleb notices, they might have to resort to actually.... y'know, using it as a phone.

Has it really come to this?

By Lacrobat on 27 Oct 2011

At last an iPhone I am going to buy

Resisted, resisted and resisted from v1 for a number of reasons mainly the camera.

This one is good enough for my needs so I will get one in Feb when I am due an upgrade.

I get rather irritated by people who just have to have the latest upgrade etc. etc.

By kaneclem on 27 Oct 2011

@ahdavies

Take it back and get it replaced. My boss has been through 4 iPhone 4 phones since May!

The first had BT and WLAN problems (30cm and 2M respectively), the next one had battery problems (stopped charging after 2 weeks), the next had WLAN problems, the next had a dead battery on delivery, his 5th iPhone 4 seems to now be stable.

By big_D on 28 Oct 2011

@Barry

Re #2: so a slight improvement over Google Voice that has been upiquitous on android hand-sets for some time. Apple may be lauded by the fanboys for being the cuting edge of technology, but it is clear that while it may be at the cutting edge of design, all it does is polish existing tech. I would have hoped PCPro would have slightly more awareness of the capabilities of the phones they had in their pockets before slavishly following the Apple line.

By Nodule on 28 Oct 2011

Flat Battery

This seems to be a problem - and no sign of a fix. Apple seem to be baffled and loyal customers feel let down

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/oct/28/i
phone-4s-battery-apple-engineers?newsfeed=true

By barrada on 29 Oct 2011

Any offline voice recognition at all?

I currently have a 3GS and if I'm in the car with a headset on, i can shout "call home" or similar to get it to dial home. I don't need to be online for it to work. Am I right in thinking that since Siri only works online, this basic functionality is likely to fail on the 4S without a half decent and stable 3g connection?

By paulfreedman1 on 30 Oct 2011

@paulfreedman1

The speech recognition on the 3GS also requires a data connection. Just tried it on my 3G, which doesn't currently have a SIM card in it and there is no WLAN at the office...

"Spiel Vergebung" (Play the girl who kicked the hornet's nest) comes up with the answer that speech commands are only available with a data connection.

By big_D on 31 Oct 2011

Poor battery life / Geo-location (@barrada & @johnahind)

@barrada:

Yes I've noticed that on my 4 as well since I upgraded to iOS 5.

I think I've pinpointed why the battery is being zapped quicker than with iOS 4. If you go into Location Services and switch on the Status Bar Icon for "System Services", you'll find the icon is showing all the time.

The battery life is about on par as when I have CoPilot running as the GPS chipset zaps battery life. I'd be curious to know which one of the system services is leaving the GPS chipset switched on all the time (or rather, does it really need GPS switched on all the time?).

It's definitely data-related, as I recently went to Belgium for 5 days, I had data roaming switched off (with no access to Wifi) and battery life increased dramatically. Not having data access reduced the iPhone to simple phone functionality (texting & calling), but battery life was pretty amazing - about 3-4 days before needing a recharge! I did also switch off 3G halfway through (as I wasn't using data) which seemed to make quite a big difference too.

@johnahind:

In answer to your question, yes it does seem to speed up with the 3GS and the 4 - when I went over to the Continent I was driving over and took the Channel Tunnel (got on at Folkestone, off at Calais). In France it very quickly locked onto a signal (SFR) and I was able to use my GPS (CoPilot) pretty much straight away.

When I was coming back, I took a plane from Brussels. When I got back to the UK and switched on the phone, it took a bit longer to sort itself out. It did find my home network (Vodafone) within about 30 secs, but was on GPRS (2G) for about 10 minutes before it coughed into life and switched over to 3G (and yes I had remembered to switch 3G back on beforehand!).

Hope this is helpful...

By mrmmm on 31 Oct 2011

@mrmmm

Yes, I have to agree. My 3GS doesn't currently have a SIM card. It is lasting 4-6 days between charges, depending on what else I do with it.

By big_D on 31 Oct 2011

Battery life - and another thing...

... What I would really like to see is an option to turn off multi-tasking and that each application shuts itself down when you click the Home button (but can save its state - exactly how iOS 3 used to work). I have it from Apple that if you have lots of apps open, that tends to eat up battery power too. I've also found it can affect performance as CoPilot will run smoothly with a couple of apps open (and can have music playing for instance), but have 10 running and the display gets jerky.

By mrmmm on 1 Nov 2011

Arni

5 years ago, you would have been a guy who hated Microsoft, now its Apple. The 4s equals the Galaxy SII in every respect, and beats it in two critical areas... it is much faster and it has a far superior environment with iOS. That's why you should pay a bit more for it, you get a better experience.

By rahighfield on 5 Jan 2012

That Samsung looks better imo

It just does. ;)

By thorv on 17 Apr 2012

Cell Ocean

At first glance this phone seems identical to its predecessor, except for the distinctive top-mounted incisions which signifies that a new design of the antenna is lying in wait inside. However, when you switch on the phone you will find that things are different. The 4S does not require activation via the computer except that you are restoring the data from a pre-existing iTunes backup. The phone can be set up as a new phone or restored from an iCloud account. In the event that you do not currently have an Apple ID, there is the option of creating one. A number of iPhone 4 users will ask themselves why they would need the iPhone 4S when the iOS 5 upgrade, which is free of charge, will equip their existing phone with the majority of the new features that are in excess of 200. However, it is important to note that the iPhone 4S is the best phone that Apple has built to date. The A5 dual-core processor, which makes things obviously nippier, is new and it is a feature that is also incorporated in the iPad 2. Web pages load quicker, apps launch faster, multi-tasking is a great deal more fluid and Pages and other resource-hungry apps now permit you to edit documents with no lag. Another great feature of the A5 processor is that it allows you to mirror the content of the iPhone 4S over AirPlay. When operated wirelessly, the iPhone 4S can push out up to 720p to the Apple TV. When connected to HDMI, the number will increase to 1080p. The ease of pushing content of the small screen to the big screen of the fly is an unexpected delight, particularly when you begin to rotate and zoom. In addition, it is something to brag about to owners of iPhone 4; the earlier model just cannot handle with the demands of this technological wizardry. The two antennas that run across the top of the iPhone 4S can both receive and transmit data, enabling quicker 3G connections. Apple has asserted that highest speed of download by way of HSDPA is 14.4Mbps, which is two times as quick as the iPhone 4. A major overhaul has been done to the camera, it now has the capacity to record 1080p video and take eight-megapixel stills. In addition, face detection is an upgrade and it works really well.

By champrizi on 17 Jul 2012

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